Author: Maha Khan Phillips
Values matter to Marie Dzanis. She wants the asset management industry to better embrace its purpose.
During the Second World War, under the command of General Patton, Edward F Shott found himself cradling a man who died in his arms. That moment had a profound effect. After the war, Shott entered a Benedictine monastery. He was a monk for almost a decade, and he took a vow of silence for four of those years.
Fast forward in time, and that period of Shott’s life had its own rippling impact - on his children. Growing up, there was no light, frivolous conversation around the dinner table. Instead, the family debated the existence of God, and had other philosophical, and meaningful discussions.
“My father interacted with me from an early age, and asked me some tough questions. He helped me realise that life is short, and that there are very important things that you need to accomplish. You have to have a strong sense of self, and conviction in who you are. And those types of lessons really resonated with me,” says Marie Dzanis, the loquacious and personable head of Northern Trust Asset Management EMEA – who is also Shott’s daughter.
Dzanis took her father’s lessons to heart. She joined the finance industry in 1990, after Shott suggested that it would be a good match for her. “I cold called a company in New York City, and got through all the gatekeepers, and spoke to the president. And I said ‘Hi, my name is Marie and I want a job’. He couldn’t believe I got through all of the screeners, and so he said finally, ‘can you be here tomorrow?’”
Over the next twelve years, Dzanis took on sales, trading and product management roles at Smith Barney. She then held a series of roles in investment management at JPMorgan, Barclays Global Investors (later BlackRock), and Northern Trust across exchange-traded funds, product development, and sales and branch management. She helped Northern Trust Asset Management launch its first ETFs in 2011, under its FlexShares brand, and was head of intermediary distribution in Chicago, prior to taking on her current role. Now, Dzanis is tasked with growing the EMEA business at Northern Trust Asset Management. With just under a trillion dollars in assets under management, Northern Trust Asset Management is one of the world’s largest asset managers.
“One of the things that I like about the asset management business is that its evolving constantly,” Dzanis says, pointing to some of the more important trends and themes in the business.
A key factor will be how ESG develops, she believes. Dzanis anticipates that ESG investing will become integrated, or mainstream, in the future. “We look across what was once a fossil fuel economy, and now we’re talking about climate change, and the reason for that is not only the disposition to move away from fossil fuels, but the sustainable economy based on younger generations. If we think that by the year 2025, 75% of the workforce will be millennials, they are going to want to invest with their values,” she says.
She is a strong advocate for all types of diversity in the workplace. “If you get a large group of people that are contributing in different ways, you don’t have that ‘yes’ person culture where everybody is aligned, saying how wonderful everybody’s ideas are. the reality is that your clients need to be served and there are all different types of clients.”
Northern Trust became a signatory of the Women in Finance Charter in 2017, and set a target to increase the number of women in senior management roles to 35% by December 2020 – a target it hit a year early. 50% of Dzanis’ hires last year were women. 31% were ethnically diverse. “So its hand to hand combat, every single day. We need to be committed to understanding what the marketplace is and how we can creatively source and support talent to make us a better investment community,” she says.
She has three ‘deal breakers’ when it comes to hiring. The first is that she will only hire people who she thinks have integrity, and will ‘do the right thing when nobody is looking’. The second is drive - that the people she hires are intellectually curious and passionate about the business. And the third is execution. “We have to be very smart in our business, because you are facing off with sophisticated investors on a regular basis. But you also have to be able to not over analyse and to be able to take appropriate action,” she explains.
She describes the Northern Trust Asset Management culture as one that is very risk aware. “We were a fiduciary long before fiduciaries were in vogue. And that permeates a lot of the things that we do. It will permeate things like the product creation process, whether or not the products are doing what they should be doing, and in attribution, we look at that very carefully, and we do that from the very beginning all throughout the process to the end.”
Dzanis wants her legacy at Northern Trust Asset Management to be one of having built a ‘sustainable culture of business success’. “I would want people to have done things that they were allowed to do successfully under me, and then to go on and do things that are far greater than I would ever imagine. That would be a great legacy for me. I would love to have a career pathing mechanism that everyone has in line of sight, and opportunity for jobs. I’d want people to feel empowered that they can make choices. I want them to feel that they are subject matter experts and that they are informing us collectively to make the best business decisions that they can, and get the best outcome for our clients,” she says.
She cites a Harvard University study that revealed that women on average need 100% certainty before they take on more responsibility, while, on average, men need 30%. “So part of that empowerment would be enabling women and ethnic minorities, a whole swathe of people that can be their best selves at the table and run their businesses and feel that they don’t have to hesitate and that they are willing to take those calculated risks.”
Make a Catch
Last year, Marie introduced a programme to her business called ‘Make A Catch’, which rewards employees who flag up anything that looks ‘off’, whether it is a mistake in a report, or a comment, or a piece of analysis. “You want to have everyone own accountability, and accountability doesn’t just mean getting decisions right, it means peoples’ willingness to take that risk, and to raise their hand. We have to be better at what we do, and if we are not open to take those types of risk, and every single person isn’t willing to take a chance and say, hey I caught something, then you leave something behind, you leave the opportunity to better your business,” explains Dzanis.
She believes that the investment industry needs to focus more on its purpose, its stewardship obligations, and what drives it - for example - by integrating climate risk more into capital market assumptions - something that Northern Trust Asset Management does already - but also by looking at how it is affecting change in the long term, by examining the value and the contribution it provides. “If you tie that all together, it doesn’t just become about doing a job, it becomes doing your passion,” she says.
These are values that Dzanis exposes not only in her work life, but also outside of work. She and her husband support the BlinkNow Foundation, which has built a children’s home, a school, a health clinic, and a women’s centre in Nepal. The Foundation was set up by Maggie Doyne, who was named CNN Hero of the Year in 2015. “Every year my husband and I will go over there, and we’ll do some volunteerism. We help financially support the school, and we’ll teach and coach kids. Every week we are in touch with a kid from that school. We do some counselling for them and offer some guidance, and they are truly our extended family. For me, it’s all about a sustainable legacy. I believe it’s the only way to live forever”.